The Pirate Woman (Chapter 17)

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Chapter 17

Dolores gaily took John Pearse by the hand and led him down the chamber to the dais on which stood the vacant chair of state of the dead Red Jabez. The great canopied bed still stood there; but it was curtained in, out of sight, and unused; Dolores preferred her own low couch, with its strangely beautiful composite furnishings of silk and tiger-skins, velvet and snowy polar-bear rugs, heaped high with luxurious cushions that made it a restful lounge by day as well as a sleep-inviting couch by night.

Beside the couch, between it and the dais, Milo had set the treasure-chests, leaving the lids wide-flung, the contents but thinly concealed by silken shawls. The end of a rope of matchless pearls hung over the edge of one chest carelessly, without apparent motive; yet when she guided Pearse to the couch and seated him, Dolores scanned his face with glinting eyes that peeped out through narrow slits. She saw his look of interest; then his mouth turned upward in a smile that said plainly: "Here is a theatrical trick to impress me!"

"Now thy reward is come," whispered Dolores, leaving him with an arch smile and kneeling before the big chests. She tore away the shawls and plunged her hands into the glittering hoard to the wrists, flinging out upon the couch and the floor, upon Pearse's knees and into his hands, rubies and emeralds, diamonds and pearls, golden chains and ornaments for the hair in a bewildering, stupendous litter. And, her face turned from him, her narrowed eyes were fixed upon him, and in their gleaming depths burned a smoldering anxiety that was nearing impatience.

For John Pearse cloaked his feelings better than his fellows; he smiled at the shower of riches, met her questing glance with a smile, and smiled again with shaking head when she stood before him, aglow with yearning for his decision, and asked simply: "Well?"

"Baubles, playthings, Dolores!" he laughed up at her. He seized her hands, stroked the satin-skinned forearm, and said softly: "These are not worthy of such a woman as Dolores. These are but the gauds of a beautiful woman. To fit you, they should be the adornments of a goddess!"

"Oh, then thy lips uttered truth!" she cried delightedly. She stooped swiftly to him, twined her arms about his neck, and laid her warm cheek to his. "Now I shall show thee treasures indeed, my John!"

She ran to the one chest yet unopened, and flung away the silk covering. Here were the gems of the craftsman's art. Stones of unparalleled color and size were in this chest; but their chief merit lay in their cunning settings, their consummate delicacy of workmanship. Here the art collector might find his El Dorado; in all the world such a collection could scarcely be found in one place. Here were shrines and temples, carved from single immense stones or pieces of jade; here was a woven thing of gold and silver, in which the warp and woof lay close as tapestry, portraying as no tapestry could portray it the fabled valley of "Sinbad," in which the sands were gold, the sky silver, and the gems were gems indeed.

"Is this to thy mind?" Dolores cried, tossing to him a golden ball which by some amazing internal mechanism played fairy chimes as it whirled through the air.

Her lips parted in flushed pleasure at the result of her display, for John Pearse was smitten with the collector's fever. He missed her ball through sheer inability to tear his eyes from the other treasures. And as his brain began to grasp the stupendous truth, to more readily estimate values, his eyes turned from the more gaudy works of art, and noticed, for the first time clearly, the pricelessness of many greater things of canvas and wood, ivory and glass, with which the apartment abounded.

"Now thy heart craves my treasures, too, eh?" she chided, gliding to him and laying a hand on his head. Yet she felt glad of his awakened interest. It was merely another card she might yet have to play.

"Astounding!" he gasped. His gaze fastened upon a boule bric-à-brac stand, on which stood an Aretine vase two feet high, of peerless form and glaze. The ticking of the great Peter Hele clock drew his attention to a work of ebony and ivory as scarcely could be believed as coming from man's hands.

"Now thou'rt of a kind with thy fellows!" she cried in anger. "Look at me! No, thy eyes will not deign to seek me now!"

Pearse snatched his eyes away, and answered her with a laugh that sent her blood leaping again.

"My Dolores forgets she demanded my admiration for her treasures," he said. "What would you have, splendid one? Shall I say these treasures are still paltry, when I see their countless worth? Still I say you are the treasure beyond price. These are but a little more fitting for you. That is all. Am I forgiven?"

He leaped to his feet, seized her hand, and attempted to slip an arm about her waist. She, lithe as a leopard, slipped from his grasp with a glad laugh that rippled in a low murmur to his hot ears, and intensified the glare that had come into his eyes. She failed to see that glare. It was the glare of greed; stark and utter greed, that counted no cost and brooked no opposition in driving for its ends.

"Thou art forgiven indeed!" she replied, panting and disheveled, a thing of wondrous loveliness. "So far art thou forgiven that I shall put thy heart to the grand test at once. Of thy fellows none can compare with thee for scorn of wealth and desire of me. Sit down again, my man; let us reveal our inmost hearts to each other."

She told him, keeping him at provoking distance, of her heart-hunger for the outside world, the world of art and things of beauty. She thrilled him with her vibrant voice, mesmerized him with her distant, caressing touch and glorious, limpid eyes. She made his blood pulse hotly with desire with her soft-spoken offer of self-surrender to the man who should lead her from her sovereignty over human beasts and set her feet in the high places of the earth.

"And with these my treasures, I shall make my man a king in truth," she said, slipping along the couch toward him and laying both hands clasped on his arm. She threw back her head, shaking loose her great masses of lustrous hair, and poured her soul at him from half-closed, moist eyes that gleamed like midnight pools in starlight. "Yet must my chosen man assure me of his love for me, and his contempt for my riches. For, though my treasures shall be his, yet will I be first in his heart or forget him."

"And first you are, and shall be, Dolores," whispered Pearse, leaning his chin on her forehead and glaring covetously at the littered wealth of the chests. "What man of warm blood can see any other being or thing when Dolores is by?"

"Then come. I believe thee," she said, rising slowly. "Come with me, my man above price. See here."

She swept back a piece of tapestry at the rear of the chamber, and disclosed a dark and gloomy cavern, hewn out of the solid rock, as was the greater cavern. From a brazier she took a pine splinter, lighted it, and beckoned Pearse into the cave. And as soon as his eyes adjusted themselves to the gloom, he saw the place stowed tightly from floor to ceiling with kegs and half-casks, hooped and marked with black characters.

"Gold?" he gasped, perspiration starting to his brows.

"Gold!" Her rejoinder was tense, almost savage; she glared at him from under the torch, a quivering shape of disgust.

"Why, Dolores, don't look like that," he laughed. "I did but wonder. If this were all gold, it could not enhance your worth in my eyes."

"Then the proof will be easy. This is not gold. It is gunpowder. Our whole store. My rascals are not to be trusted with more powder than they can use at once. From this store I dole them out their rounds; thus are all safe. But at this moment I have other use for this powder. Stay here; or no, help me. It will be finished the sooner."

Dolores ran out into the great chamber again, Pearse following her wonderingly. She left him in wonder but a short time; for, gathering up a great armful of treasure she started back to the cave, crying: "Come, fill thy arms, too." He paused, and she took up his hesitation swiftly, feeling again a surge of doubt and disgust rise in her breast. She called to him, scornfully: "What, art afraid? Come, faint one; beyond here is my secret outlet from this place. Now art satisfied?"

And John Pearse followed into the cave, a-tingle with the hope that he was indeed the elect. He saw her fling her riches down on the tops of the kegs; she bade him do likewise, and then led the way back for more. And so she went, and so he followed; journey after journey was completed, until the gunpowder-kegs were almost buried beneath the wealth of an empire. Then the girl stepped outside, and called Milo. The giant appeared with silent speed.

"Milo, burst me one of these kegs," she ordered, and her voice forced Pearse's attention; it was so cold, passionless, utterly controlled. The keg was burst, and a trickle of coarse cannon powder ran on the floor.

"Lay a damp train out to the ledge over the grove, Milo!"

Milo disappeared through the gallery, trickling moistened powder from his fingers as he went. Then, when his voice sounded back along the passage, Dolores again took Pearse by the arm and said, looking him full in the eyes: "Thy test, friend. Here am I. Out there is the grove, and beyond it the sea. Take this torch. Put light to the powder train, and thou and I will depart in the white schooner. We shall leave nothing for these vultures to fight over. But together we will go far away into thy world, thee and me."

"And leave my friends here?" he asked, huskily.

"Ay, my man, but not alive!" she whispered, thrusting her dark, flushed face close to his, and letting her lips breathe their fragrance upon him. "They, thy friends, are not as my beasts. They have the brains of the white kings of the earth; they have the cunning which makes of all other races slaves and dependents. Leave them here, living, and in a day they will rule these rabble and together they will hunt us down. Come, haste. Put thy fire to the train."

"Not yet! Tell me what deviltry is to be worked upon my companions."

"Hah! Then thou'rt but lukewarm in thy love. Am I not Dolores? Am I not worth thy two friends? Listen, I'll tell thee my price, friend. If thy friends are to live, then destroy this trash ere we go, so that they get it not. If thy heart is bent upon saving this treasure, then thy hand must first put thy friends into their long sleep. Nay, peace! There is no alternative. The man who mates with me shall be a man indeed; no petty, squeamish lover whose weak heart sickens at removing a rival."

"Give me until morning," he replied, dry of throat, and pallid of face. "It is a terrible thing you ask, Dolores. Yet I dare not say the cost is too high. As for destroying these treasures, that I know is but a trick to try me. You could never go out into a new world and take a low station. That you would have to do if I set fire to that train." He suddenly darted a look of fierce challenge at her, "There!" he cried. "The trial is yours!"

He flung down his torch, and the powder-train began to splutter and fizz. Dolores flashed a look of approval at him, and burst into a ringing, happy laugh. She kicked aside the torch, and trampled out and relaid the train; then ran to Pearse impulsively, and said with simple earnestness that utterly deceived him: "Now I believe in thee again, and for ever. 'Twas but to try thee, John. We will leave nothing of worth when we go. But that makes it the more imperative that thy friends have no power to harm us afterward. Think not that Dolores will take a lower station. I shall be queen wherever I go, and my man shall be made a king by my power.

"I give thee until noon to think over thy answer. Go, and the gods protect thee and make thee faithful to me."

Calling Milo back, she bade him conduct Pearse from the great chamber, and as they passed out, little Pascherette peered up at Pearse with an impudent smile, and with her head on one side like a bird she chattered: "White stranger, thou'rt a fool! What Dolores wills, will surely come to pass. If thy heart fails thee, and thy friends are safe at thy hands, dost think they will have like scruples? Fool again! One of them will kill thee and the other, and that man will gain a peerless mate. And, bend down thy tall head, thou imitation giant--already thy two friends are liberated, each seeking the life of the other, though neither knows of the other's freedom!"

"What?" stammered Pearse, gripping the girl's slim shoulder fiercely. "If you lie--"

"Pshaw! One need not lie to befool thee!" Pascherette retorted scornfully. "Sleep, and if thy throat is not yet slit on thy awakening, make thy decision quickly, and tell it to Dolores."

Pearse would have answered her with more questioning, but she laughed at him, and bade Milo shut him out. So the great rock fell, and Pearse wandered into the camp, not knowing where he went, and caring little. He had no place to sleep, so far as he knew; yet he felt no wonder. He walked through the sleeping-camp, across the grove, and into the forest, his brain on fire and seething with the problem before him.

"The treasure, with or without the woman!" he muttered, clenching his hands savagely. "The treasure! Ye gods! There must be the wealth of Monte Cristo there!" He broke off into a harsh laugh at thought of his challenge with the torch. "The witch!" he chuckled. "She was clever, but John Pearse overreached her. Now I know her heart. But--"

He wandered on, and his mind was centered upon Venner and Tomlin. The more he thought over the situation, the more he found his ideas forming themselves after Dolores's.

"Why should I share it?" he asked of the winking stars.

And while he communed with himself regarding her and her demands, Dolores overlooked Milo in a task that brought a sparkle to her eyes and a gleaming smile to her lips. They were repacking the great treasure chests.

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